“I swear,” said Elsie. “It’s really there.”
“We’ve been over every square inch of this godforsaken place. We ain’t never seen a road.” Michael was coiling some wire at his hip as he spoke; he hadn’t actually used the word godforsaken but rather another word that Elsie had only heard aloud once before. Her father had dropped the lid of a Dutch oven on his foot; the word had resounded throughout the house.
“What, are you calling my sister a liar?” asked Rachel, suddenly annoyed by the older kids’ attitudes.
“Don’t get all worked up,” said Michael, laughing. “I’m just saying, if there was a road here, we’d have found it by now.”
“Maybe it’s a trick of the light or something,” suggested Cynthia. “Sometimes the forest can look kind of funny at certain times of the day.”
“It wasn’t,” said Rachel. “I saw it. With my own eyes.”
“Come on,” Elsie said. “Just come see it. It’s really not that far off.”
Michael looked at the two sisters calmly, measuring them up. Finally, he shook his head and continued coiling the wire. “Listen,” he said. “It’s getting late. We should really be back at the cottage. Carol’ll be expecting us. It’s getting on dinnertime.”
“Really?” asked Rachel in disbelief. “You’re not going to just come and see it?”
“We’ll set out tomorrow, promise. First thing. Then we’ll all get a good look at this road of yours.” He threw his arm over Elsie’s shoulder and gave her a little rub on her hair with his knuckl
es. “Plus, you got a line of kids waiting for those dolls you make; you got some work to do.”
Elsie smiled briefly, then said, “But we’ll go see the road tomorrow?”
“Promise,” said Michael.
“A road? What, like a paved road?”
Carol had paused in mid-puff and was staring in the direction of the two girls’ voices, his pipe poised only inches from his lips. It seemed to be frozen there, as if it too was suspended in the same gel as the movement of time in the Periphery.
Elsie looked at her sister hesitantly; she sipped at her mint tea. She and Rachel, with the two teenaged hunters, had cornered Carol after they’d bused the dirty plates from the house’s five dinner tables and stacked them on the counter by the sink. Two boys laughed quietly over some shared joke as they ran the dishes through the soapy water. The younger children had been sent to their beds; the older children were scattered about the house, enjoying the last few moments of the evening.
“Not paved, so much,” said Rachel. “More like a gravel road. Or maybe there were some stones there. It looked like it’d been there for a long time.”
The two wooden eyes shifted in Carol’s head; still, in the half-light of the candles, they showed two bright blue irises. Elsie could even see the brush marks.
“And there was a pillarlike thing, like a mile marker or something. On the other side.” This was Elsie.
Michael had remained silent for most of the conversation; he, too, was packing his pipe with tobacco. The boy finally spoke up. “What did it say? Did it have anything on it?”
Rachel nodded; she’d seen it up close. When Elsie had brought her to the site of the road, she’d mentally jotted down the carved insignia in her explorations. “An arrow, with a picture of a bird,” she said.
Carol blew out a breath. It sounded like “HOOO!”
The children all looked to him.
“That’d be about right,” he said. He finally brought the lip of the pipe to his mouth and took a long, ponderous drag. “Direction marker. You were pointed toward the Avian Principality, if memory serves.”
Michael stared at the old man intently; Cynthia dropped the spoon she’d been using to stir the cream into her tea.
“Seems like you guys found a way through the Bind,” said Carol. “Some kinda break or something. You remember passing through anythin out of the ordinary? Something that might’ve looked like a passageway or somethin? I ’member folks talkin about such things; rifts and such. But I never knew any to exist.”
“Not really,” said Elsie. “I mean, I think I would’ve remembered something like that. I don’t think I followed the exact same way when I went back. I tied ivy stalks to the trees, but I didn’t, like, use my exact footsteps on the way when I showed it to Rachel.”
Rachel nodded in affirmation; she was absently batting her yellow tag earring with her finger.
“Well,” said Carol after a significant pause, “I suppose we’ll have to go look at this road of yours.”
Michael looked shocked. “It seems like it might be a long way, Carol. Sure you can manage?”